“Good evening. Tonight’s selection is a chilling tale of mayhem, shrubbery, and a wallaby who knew too much.” —Heffer introducing “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”
My previous foray into childhood Halloweeny goodness was pretty gentle; Rugrats wasn’t really one to push the boundaries of children’s television. Rocko’s Modern Life, the subject of this week’s Spooky Specials, did nothing but push those boundaries. Along with the equally disgusting, adult-pitched Ren and Stimpy, Rocko was a media watchdog’s worst nightmare: brimming with crude toilet and nudity humor, thinly veiled sex jokes (the damn restaurant was named the Chokey Chicken for nearly four whole seasons before someone figured out that it was a masturbation joke), and absurdly adult themes and situations. (Does anyone else remember when Rocko was a phone sex operator? ‘Cause I sure do.) So, it follows suit that the Rocko’s Modern Life Halloween special is strange, disturbing, and very obviously not for kids (but fuck if we didn’t watch the hell out of it anyway).
The first segment really typifies the average Rocko episode. It starts off with a normal premise (Rocko and Heffer are going trick-or-treating!) before rapidly spiraling into a cacophony of screaming and toned down expletives. Then begin the non sequitur plot points, the plethora of adult jokes and references, all concluding with an out-of-nowhere or unsatisfying (or both) ending. Since the first segment sticks very closely to this kind of unstructured style I find it the weaker of the two. The plot (and I use that term loosely) has Rocko, Heffer and the ever-petrified Filbert going trick-or-treating and crossing paths with a Headless Horseman-esque ghoul (The Hopping Hessian). There’s a strange sub-plot about Filbert’s childhood Halloween trauma and him cracking out on candy, followed by a completely incomprehensible ending. “Sugar Frosted Frights” works for sheer manic spooky fun, but when it comes to constructing an actual scary story “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!” just gives me goosebumps.
“Ed is Dead” is one of those great over-kids’-heads episodes that I’m sure many parents got a kick out of. For starters, the segment’s plot is an homage to Rear Window and the whole thing is a Hitchcock pastiche, which I’m pretty sure most kids in my age bracket didn’t catch. Also, the segment centers around Ed and Bev Bighead, two of the least child-friendly characters on the show: middle-aged toads whose embittered bickering and simmering-just-below-the-surface contempt for one another is only outweighed by the amount of disturbingly passionate sex they have. Ed is curmudgeonly and insensitive to his always horny, often frustrated wife, which brings us to the comedy of errors in “Ed is Dead.” A cursory familiarity with Rear Window (or any of its many parodies) is all you need to know the plot of this segment, as Rocko thinks he sees Bev brutally stab Ed to death from his window and begins searching for answers. The truth, of course, is that Ed was fine all along, merely away to get a bothersome wart removed from his ass.
For a child unaware that it’s just a wacky Rear Window parody, however, this shit was actually pretty horrifying. The disturbing sounds of the Bev “stabbing” Ed, the lightning and darkness that surround the Bigheads’ house, the tense moments where Rocko is in the house and Bev arrives home… it was all very scary but when coupled with exaggerated cartoon elements it was also silly and funny. I believed that Ed was actually dead but was still laughing all the while. And therein lies the twisted joy of Halloween specials and the holiday itself. They expose children to terrors that are normally hidden—and they make it fun. “Ed is Dead” makes marital murder into a game, tightly packed in a bright, frenetic bundle, and ready for juvenile consumption.